I'm in an interesting situation at work. I work with "Joe". Joe and I are both programmers, having both been professionally programming for about 20 years. Joe does some of the worst work I've seen in my professional career, and in my personal opinion should have been fired years ago. I've discussed this ad nauseam with my direct manager, who Joe doesn't report too, mostly because Joe is wasting my time asking questions he should know the answer too.

My company is finally waking up to Joe, and his bad work quality and terrible work ethic. Unfortunately instead of firing him, they are trying to push him off on another division of the company, with a separate management structure.

Joe essentially needs to be re-interviewed by this other division in order to be officially transferred. Tomorrow, I've been asked by the development manager of this division to provide a reference of Joe, this will be done over the phone.

I want to come off as professional as possible to this manager, as we have worked together before, and will continue to do so. Unfortunately having worked with Joe for about a year now, I have a lot of "dirt" that could immediately seal his grave at this company.

My question:

Do I tell this manager the whole story about Joe, every negative detail? I'm just concerned if I do this, I may come across in a negative way and my bias toward Joe being fired is going to be blatantly obvious.

If not the whole story, at what line should I draw in this conversation?

** Closing thoughts after this phone interview **

I had my phone interview reference about Joe, we used a massive code review as a base for evaluating Joe. Joe did these changes solely, so it was a good factual representation about what Joe was capable/not capable of. We both came to the same conclusions, and the manager definitely read through the lines and noticed I wasn't saying anything positive. The message was received well, and I can feel good that I didn't get into a bunch of gossip and mud slinging about Joe.

  • A reference letter is generally supposed to be a recommendation. If I were in your shoes, I would warn the manager that I wouldn’t be able to say anything good about Joe. If he still insisted I write the letter, though, I wouldn’t hold back. Feb 23, 2018 at 3:16
  • @AffableAmbler yes, the first option should be to try to decline that recommendation. However, OP indicated that this will be over the phone, so that is different from writing a letter (easier to screw up on a phone than on a written letter)
    – DarkCygnus
    Feb 23, 2018 at 3:27
  • @DarkCygnus Good call. I missed the "over the phone" part. Feb 23, 2018 at 3:30
  • If you have real bad "dirt" then think about if you should have told some of this to the management earlier (i.e. big errors, maybe he stole something, etc.). Because if you report it now then maybe people will ask (or at least think) why you didn't say anything about this some time ago. And maybe that will be bad for your future career...
    – Edgar
    Feb 23, 2018 at 4:19
  • 1
    Did Joe present you as a reference or did the company just ask you because you worked together? (Declining to be his reference is "better" if he asked for you to be his reference and you don't want to say good things) Feb 23, 2018 at 15:28

7 Answers 7


If not the whole story, at what line should I draw in this conversation?

I would suggest a two-step approach:

  1. Seems that you don't want to give that reference, so first try telling the manager about this, and that you would prefer not to give such reference and if someone else can do it.

    Best case, the manager understands your situation and asks someone else to be the reference.

  2. Now, if the manager insists on you giving the recommendation, then you will have no other choice but to give it.

    Here you will have to decide: how detailed and on what aspects will you focus. Usually, it is not recommended to badmouth your employers or coworkers, but that doesn't mean you have to cover their faults.

    Now, you say this will be done over the phone, so that helps narrow down the courses of action. I suggest that you try to limit yourself to answer what they prompt you, and don't go into much detail if not asked for it. Stick to what you know, and the facts you have about this person. This way you will not fall into deliberate badmouthing or "throwing dirt" to your coworker, but at the same time remain truthful about your opinion.

    Of course, if they ask mainly things that he lacks and you know them for sure (too bad for him) then you should tell the truth about it, but again if you do try to do it as tactfully and factual as possible.

  • 1
    I'm going to disagree with the last bit: "Of course, if they ask mainly things that he lacks (too bad for him) then you should tell the truth about it" - That's the point where you stop working above your role (which is really what's being asked, here), and say, "You really should speak to our manager about that issue." Feb 23, 2018 at 15:42
  • @WesleyLong As long as OP sticks to the facts and what he knows there will be no problem in answering truthfully. Of course, if they ask about things that the coworker lacks but OP does not know for sure, the best is not to speculate and decline from answering as you said. Editing to remove confusion.
    – DarkCygnus
    Feb 23, 2018 at 15:49
  • 2
    Just a followup, I did exactly what you said to do in your second answer. The other manager caught on immediately the non-verbal queues I was sending. He got the message loud and clear and at the end of the day we were both professional about the exchange. "Joe" was never hired on by that division and has since been fired altogether. Thanks for the advice!
    – Jay
    Mar 20, 2018 at 19:17
  • @raterus glad I could help :) Keeping it professional (thus, non-personal) is usually the way to go
    – DarkCygnus
    Mar 20, 2018 at 20:04

Do not say anything negative or overtly damaging. That kind of sensitive feedback should come directly from Joe's manager. You can get into a real murky area if you say things that damage his reputation and cause loss of job and he finds out. Don't rehash previous bad projects, failed deployments, or anything like that.

One thing that I have found works is to say lukewarm things about the person that are mostly irrelevant to what the primary work they will be doing. What you don't say about a person in a referral is equally as impactful.

If I was asked to give a reference for a dev who I thought had poor skills, I would say something along the lines of:

"Joe is a pretty punctual person. He mostly shows up to meetings on time and arrives around the beginning of core hours. How do I feel about his development abilities? I really don't have an opinion or anything to say about that."

This response does not put you in a position of saying anything unsubstantiated that Joe could sue you for saying, and the person you are talking to will absolutely get the picture that you do not have a high opinion of Joe's ability.

  • A fantastic answer.
    – Fattie
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:40
  • I totally agree with this answer. I did this in the past. I dodge the question "Is he good?" a few time with some excuses: 1) the project was rush, I did not have the time to assert his skills level 2) we did not work on any common part, so I do not know about his work quality 3) You should ask Guy X who work with him as a client, he know more than me.
    – Tom Sawyer
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:42
  • Even if you really hate how the guy worked, you are the one who is working with him full time. If somebody in the chain of command spill anything that you said, this guy who you are with full time will be piss off about you and you do not know how much time he will stay longer at the company or how much damage he can do to you, your projects or the department.
    – Tom Sawyer
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:45
  • When I answered exactly how this answer describe, the hiring manager smell something wrong and asked me 3 times during the conversation: Should I know something about him? Without telling anything, he knew something was wrong and did not hire the guy. I expect that a good manager should be able to read between the lines and understand that you cannot burn your coworker. If the hiring manager does not have this skill, too bad for him, he will miss a lot of good reading opportunities.
    – Tom Sawyer
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:47
  • 2
    @SebastienDErrico Agreed. When you get a call about a reference for a stellar colleague, you are more than willing to gush about them, so how great they are, and that you would have no hesitation with working with them again. When you give a totally flat-toned reference, that is pretty easy to interpret.
    – dfundako
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:49

It's fairly standard in business to never give a bad review.

That doesn't mean you have to give a good one.

I've worked with Joe for a year now, and am familiar with his work habits. I have reviewed his work on several occasions and have made corrections where necessary.

In short, you can damn someone with faint praise. People get the message. Dilbert.com used to have the "Performance review generator" that would kick out little gems like this:

Over the past year, many of Mr Smith's coworkers have been willing to comment on his work. He has never been caught sleeping on the job. Employees like Mr Smith demonstrate the importance of good hiring practices and the possibility of hiring more people like Mr Smith should be discussed immediately.

You don't need to go into detail to give him a bad review, just don't say anything that indicates any good points, they'll get the message.

  • 1
    LOL Richard good one :)
    – Fattie
    Feb 23, 2018 at 14:40
  • 3
    I actually answered a recruiter once with, "You know, it's never good form to give a bad reference." when I was called for a reference by a particularly inept coworker (who had not asked me beforehand). After the 2nd time I said that in answer to their question, they "clued in" and just said, "Aha. Thank you. You just saved me a lot of headache." Feb 23, 2018 at 15:44

Explain this:

"I've been asked by the development manager of this division to provide a reference of Joe, ...".

and this:

"Joe does some of the worst work I've seen in my professional career, and in my personal opinion should have been fired years ago. My company is finally waking up to Joe, and his bad work quality and terrible work ethic.".

Very tactfully and carefully explain:

"Unfortunately instead of firing him, they are trying to push him off on another division of the company, with a separate management structure.".

Don't lie to the other manager or defraud your company. That can cost you your job.

The person whom decided that Joe ought to be hired in the first place and the person whom decided Joe should have a free ride for years are the ones whom should say why "Joe is so great".

If they expect you to say: "Joe is so great." then they expect you to lie or they have poor judgment. Joe rips off: you (having to deal with him), the company, and costs a worthy candidate a job - someone is unemployed because of Joe (unless only Joe could do the job, which apparently he can not).

No need to bury Joe, no obligation to give him unnecessary mouth-to-mouth resuscitation either.

Polite, professional, truthful - how do you want to be remembered after you leave?

Should Joe gain a promotion (because the other manager has a ton of pull) and be promoted to management, then sent back to replace your division's development manager ... It seems fair, unless you voice your objections during that call.


We don't know exactly what the political situation is with this transfer, but generally you want to avoid ever giving an official "negative" reference.

Instead, stick to the facts, answer the questions asked (as in, don't try to shove negative information into your answers if it isn't pertinent to the question) and instead of outright saying "he screwed this up," speak strictly about facts without praising him.

A good manager is going to pick up on you not providing any positive things, even if you aren't just coming out and saying you think the guy isn't any good. Importantly, if the other manager knows your manager is playing hot potato with this guy, he may be looking for ammunition to use to stop the transfer - you should not say this guy is great if he isn't, but you also don't want to have him quoting you at the next manager's meeting on why he didn't accept the transfer if that will annoy your manager.


There are three possible outcomes: Joe stays in your department, Joe moves to another department, or Joe gets fired. Your reference is quite important or even decisive for the outcome.

If you give a good reference, Joe will move to another department. Are you happy with that, and is your manager happy with that? If that is the case, give him a good reference.

If you give a bad reference, he will not move to another department. He will stay with you or get fired, but the firing may not up to you or your manager. If you give a bad reference and as a result Joe stays with your department, both you and your manager will be unhappy.

So I recommend you talk to your manager what outcome he wants, and what kind of reference he wants you to give. And check other answers how to give a bad reference without it being to obviously bad to cause yourself trouble.


There seems to be something wrong with this process of involving you in the evaluation. Make sure you fully understand what it is they want from you. It looks like they have someone else who has reviewed his code and will probably drop him just for that.

It's possible, they just want some insight from you as a coworker along the lines of getting along, communication, etc. If you can avoid making any comments about his coding, I would.

The dual-edged sword here is if you don't give him a negative review and he performs poorly, you will not look favorable. Again, ask them what they want from you and get explicit answers.

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